August 14, 2016
RIO DE JANEIRO — In the 32-year history of the women’s Olympic marathon, countries such as the United States, Portugal, Japan and Romania had all produced Olympic champions but never Kenya. That is, until Sunday morning, when Jemima Sumgong broke the tape at the famed Sambodromo in 2:24:04 to earn Kenya’s first gold medal in the 26.2-mile event. Sumgong, who won the London Marathon in April, had company almost the entire way, but was finally able to separate from Kenyan-born Eunice Kirwa of Bahrain during the final mile, winning by nine seconds. Kirwa took the bronze while 2015 world champion Mare Dibaba earned silver for Ethiopia.
The US women performed well as all three finished in the top 10 for the first time in history. Shalane Flanagan (2:25:26) was sixth, Desi Linden was seventh (2:26:08) and Olympic Trials champ Amy Cragg ninth (2:28:25).
Recap, results and analysis below.
Despite falling in the middle of Brazil’s winter, conditions were typical of an Olympic marathon — hot (70 degrees at race start), sunny and humid (83% humidity). With that said, the pace wasn’t too slow early on as the massive main pack hit 5k in 17:23 (2:25 pace). The Kenyans and Ethiopians went to the front at that point and began to push the pace before Linden took over briefly. After 5k splits of 16:59 and 17:21, there were 15 women within four seconds of the lead at 15 kilometers (51:43), with the American trio three-to-four seconds back of leader Rose Chelimo of Bahrain.
The Americans weren’t in trouble; they were actually running smarter than the top women, running on top of the dotted red line that denoted the shortest route to the finish while several of the leaders ran out wide. In addition, the Americans tried to run evenly and did not surge into the drinks stations. As a result, Linden would often spot the pack 20+ meters after the drinks stations only to make it up gradually over the next couple kilometers. And when Linden did rejoin the leaders, she was unafraid to move to the very front; at 17k, she had a three-meter gap on the field. As always, Linden was running her own race.
The first major casualty came at 18k as 2015 London champ Tigist Tufa pulled up with what appeared to be a muscle pull (gruesome picture here) in her lower left leg and dropped out. The rest of the major players were all there at halfway though, with 10 women within two seconds of the front at the halfway mark (1:12:56) — Belarus’ Volha Mazuronak, Kenya’s Visiline Jepkesho, Kirwa, Chelimo, Dubai champ Tirfi Tsegaye, Sumgong, Dibaba, 2015 world silver medallist Helah Kiprop, Flanagan and Cragg. Linden was six seconds back in 11th.
Mazuronak, who is coached by doper Liliya Shobukhova and was fourth in London earlier this year after a huge negative split, was now the one pushing the pace and by 25k (17:00 last 5k), the lead pack was down to nine with Linden 31 seconds back in 10th. Cragg and Kiprop would fall off as well shortly, with Kiprop eventually dropping out. Linden, meanwhile, was making up ground quickly on the leaders and passed Cragg, who tried to go with her former Arizona State teammate but couldn’t hang on. By 30k, Linden had clawed back 18 seconds, running 16:56 to the top group’s 17:14 for the last 5k.
But the move proved to be too much, too soon for the usually patient Linden; by 35k she had given up all the ground she worked so hard for and was back to 31 seconds behind the leaders. Tsegaye had assumed the lead up front and the seven-woman pack was threatening to burst open with the finish line just over four miles away. Flanagan was still there, but the American was not looking comfortable, fighting hard just to stay in contact at the rear of the pack.
The three 10-kilometer loops along Guanabara Bay were now finished and as the women turned back toward the city just after 35 kilometers (2:003:31), Kirwa made the first big move of the race. Immediately, the pack fissured. Mazuronak was off the back; Flanagan and Chelimo were even further behind. Sumgong and Tsegaye were trying to hold on in third and fourth as Dibaba was the only one who appeared unfazed by the move, sticking on Kirwa like glue. By 37k, Tsegaye too had been dropped as Kirwa, Dibaba and Sumgong ran together. Those three stayed tight for the next mile before Dibaba began to fade. Their 5k split from 35k to 40k proved what the dissolution of the pack had suggested: they had just run the fastest 5k segment of the race, 16:31, with Sumgong and Kirwa up front and Dibaba three seconds back. At that point, the medals were sorted (Tsegaye was 27 seconds back of Dibaba in fourth) and Dibaba looked to be assured of bronze. But would gold go to Kenya for the first time, or to the Kenyan representing Bahrain?
With a mile to go, Sumgong made her bid for Olympic glory and by the 1k to go marker, she had two seconds on Kirwa. Sumgong was relentless, and though she had gapped Kirwa, she was faced with a new obstacle: several spectators appeared on the course at various points during the final kilometer. Luckily the police escort was able to chase them out of Sumgong’s path and it didn’t affect her race.
As Sumgong turned back into the Sambodromo for the finishing stretch, she had about five seconds on Kirwa, and that would only grow to the finish as she pumped her fist across the line to earn Kenya’s first Olympic gold in this event. Kirwa wound up second, with Dibaba holding on for third as both women added Olympic medals to the World Championship medals they earned in Beijing last year. Flanagan crossed in sixth a minute later (2:25:26), improving on her 2012 finish by four places, while Linden took sixth (2:26:08), making amends for her DNF in London four years ago. Cragg, who never stopped fighting, sprinted to the line and wound up ninth in 2:28:25 — just five seconds slower than her winning time at the Trials in February.
Results and full analysis appear below.
5k – 17:23
10k- 16:59 (34:22)
15k – 17:21 (51:43)
20k – 17:24 (1:09:07)
25k – 17:00 (1:26:07)
30k – 17:14 (1:43:21)
35k – 17:10 (2:00:31)
40k – 16:31 (2:17:02)
Quick take #1 – Is Sumgong now the best marathoner in world?
Each year, we unofficially say the winner of the London Marathon – the toughest professional marathon in the world to win – is the best marathoner in the world. Sumgong certainly deserves that title as in addition to winning London in April, she’s now the Olympic champion. The win today virtually guaranteed herself the #1 world ranking for 2016.
Fellow Kenyan Mary Keitany, who controversially wasn’t named to the Kenyan squad, certainly is capable of giving Sumgong a run for her money. It will be interesting to see when they clash again – could it happen in NY this fall or will we have to wait until London next year?
It’s hard to believe that this is Kenya’s first Olympic women’s marathon gold. But you need to remember that women didn’t start running the marathon in the Olympics until 1984 and Kenyans didn’t really start getting good at the marathon until the mid to late ’90s (the first Kenyan women to win NY was in 1994 and for Boston it was 2000). At each of the last three Olympics, Kenya had won silver in the women’s marathon (Catherine Ndereba 2004 and 2008, Priscah Jeptoo 2012) after winning a bronze in 2000.
Quick take #2 – Don’t tell us Olympians don’t get paid. For all practical purposes, Sumgong won $500,000 today.
With her win today, Sumgong has now won two World Marathon Major events this year – the maximum one can win in a given World Marathon Major season. That’s almost certainly going to get her the $500,000 that goes with being the World Marathon Majors series champ because if someone else wins two events, it normally is awarded after a race directors’ vote. Barring a world record, who is going to vote against the Olympic champ who also won London? We don’t think anyone.
It wasn’t all positive vibes for Sumgong today though as she responded to doping questions related to her agent Federico Rosa facing charges in Kenya and her banned former training partner, Rita Jeptoo. We have that in a separate article here: LRC With Former Training Partner Banned from the Sport and Agent Federico Rosa Facing Doping Charges in Kenya, Jemima Sumgong (and Federico Rosa) Responds to Doping Questions
Quick Take #3: All three Americans ran strong races and have nothing to be ashamed of — the top women were simply better
Flanagan, Linden and Cragg were all of a similar mind in the mixed zone after the race. All wanted to place higher, but at the same time agreed that they could not have done any more — in their buildup or on race day — to produce a better outcome. Hot weather like today tends to lead to more blowups by the favorites, but several of the African-born runners brought their A games today, and their A games are better than the Americans’ A games.
Check out how the PRs of the top four compare to the Americans
- Jemima Sumgong (2:20:41)
- Eunice Kirwa (2:21:41)
- Mare Dibaba (2:19:52)
- Tirfi Tsegaye (2:19:41)
- Shalane Flanagan (2:21:14)
- Desi Linden (2:22:38)
- Amy Cragg (2:27:03)
“The women we were competing against, they’re just amazing,” Cragg said. “They’re so, so good. So we knew we had to train to be up there, we had to race the perfect race, we had to conserve energy early and then be ready to race at the end. And I feel like we did everything. I feel like we were the most prepared people out there. It just didn’t work out today.
One way to appreciate the performances by the American today is to compare it to what they did at the Olympic Trials. The conditions were similar (the runners said it was harder to run today — more humid — than the Trials) but the times were way faster today. At the Trials, Flanagan was third in 2:29:19. Today she was nearly four minutes better (3:53, which is 8.9 seconds per mile) and was 6th. At the Trials, Linden was second in 2:28:53 but today she ran 2:26:08 and was 7th. Cragg almost equaled the time she ran to win the Trials (2:28:25 versus 2:28:20) and was just 9th.
We have more on Shalane Flanagan and what was likely her final Olympic race in a separate article: LRC Shalane Flanagan Leads US Team to Historic Day at Olympic Marathon and Says This Likely is Her Final Olympics.
Quick Take #4: Silver linings for the Americans
This was the first time in Olympic history that three American women had placed in the top 10 in the Olympic marathon, and all three women placed ahead of the top American four years ago in London (Flanagan in 10th). In fact, their runs today were the third-, fourth- and fifth-best finishes by American women in the Olympic marathon. Before today, an American had finished in the top 9 of an Olympic marathon exactly twice in history. Today all three women were in the top 9.
Best Finishes by American Women in the Olympic Marathon
1st: Joan Benoit Samuelson, 1984
3rd: Deena Kastor, 2004
6th: Shalane Flanagan, 2016
7th: Desi Linden, 2016
9th: Amy Cragg, 2016
10th: Cathy Obrien 1992, Anne Marie Lauck 1996, Shalane Flanagan 2012
If you scored the race cross-country style (with all three women scoring), the U.S.’s total of 22 points would have placed them first overall. Ethiopia did very well, going 3-4, but their third runner, Tigist Tufa, wound up a DNF.
Quick Take #5: Desi Linden: “That’s the whole point. You come out here to find out [how good you are].”
Linden was happy with her performance, with the one possible regret that she pushed a little too hard between 25k and 30k.
“I think I might have been a little too aggressive that last 10k loop going towards the far end,” Linden said. “I got excited, I could see myself closing in and then I just got stuck in one pace coming back the rest of the way. I was completely gapped. I couldn’t make any moves…We went all-in and that’s as good as I am. And that’s the whole point, you come out here to find out.
Linden felt that she handled the heat well — following Galen Rupp’s lead at the Olympic Trials, USATF made a special singlet with holes punched in it for the marathoners (Linden wore it, Flanagan and Cragg opted for the more traditional crop top). That, plus training in the heat and humidity of a Michigan summer meant Linden was ready to roll today.
For the most part, though, Linden executed her race plan. To get a medal, she was always going to have to run down people over the final 10k, but the top women didn’t slow down enough for Linden to catch them.
Quick Take #6: Amy Cragg had to fight back tears after finishing ninth but knows there wasn’t anything else she could have done
Cragg was the most disappointed of the three with her performance, but before today it would have been the third-best finish by an American woman in the Olympic marathon.
“I’m pretty bummed about it,” Cragg said. “We didn’t come here to get ninth. We trained to be medal contenders.”
Cragg had a rollercoaster ride of a race, alternating periods where she felt good with some rough stretches, including some stomach problems. Cragg was feeling bad during the final 10k loop by the bay, but started to rally late before struggling again the final three miles. But Cragg did her best to compete with the women near her in the race and ran harder than anyone across the line, even though she only finished ninth.
Cragg can take solace in the fact that she left no stone unturned during her buildup.
“Since February 14 (the day after the Trials, I’ve been doing every single thing I could be, every single day, to be the best that I could today. And a big part of that is being around Shalane, I never second-guess what I’m doing. I know we’re doing everything we can. We were so prepared. Jerry [Schumacher] had us ready for any kind of race, any kind of conditions. It just didn’t quite work out, but I ran as hard as I could.
Cragg was effusive in her praise of the great Flanagan, whom she credited for her improvement as a marathoner.
Quick Take #7: Who is Volha Mazuronak? Former Race Walker Gets 5th In The Olympic Marathon
Some may have been surprised to see an unfamiliar face among the world’s best marathoners in the latter stages of the race today. Belarus’s former race walker Volha Mazuronak went to the front and started pushing at about the halfway point and did a large chunk of the leading from there until she was dropped around 35K, holding on to finish 5th, only one second behind Tsegaye.
Although she wasn’t someone discussed by most as a medal contender, Mazuronak wasn’t an unknown as she had a big breakthrough at the London Marathon with a 2:23:54 PB for 4th place. Today continues her meteoric improvement as a distance runner since she moved to a road race focus in 2011.
Before that, she was primarily known as a race walker (although she also ran some XC), having placed 4th in the World Youth Championships in 2005 and 5th at 2006 World Juniors. After 2007 she stopped competing at the elite level and didn’t post any results until 2011 and made her marathon debut with a 2:33:56 in 2012. From there, she had some steady improvements running 2:27 at 2014 CIM, 2:25 at London 2015 and then the big 2:23 at London this year. Now, four years since her marathon debut, she is at a completely different level with a PB 10 minutes faster and a 5th place Olympic finish to her name.
While race walker to Olympic marathoner is a great story, Mazuronak’s big improvements have made some suspicious. After London, #2 all-time UK marathoner Mara Yamauchi wrote a blog post pointing out how Mazuronak ran an almost three-minute negative split and actually set a half-marathon PR in the second half. While Yamauchi didn’t come out and accuse Mazuronak of doping, she wrote, “If anyone with a good knowledge of women’s marathon running can make sense of this performance, please let me know!” and also predicted that Mazuronak would “produce another astonishing performance in Rio.” Also counting against Mazuronak is the fact that she is coached by infamous Russian doper Liliya Shobukhova, who has been at the center of the Russian doping scandal, having paid a bribe to former IAAF president Lamine Diack to cover up a doping positive.
Like Yamauchi, we are not going to accuse Mazuronak of anything, but we will say that using someone with a rap sheet like Shobukhova as your coach is extremely poor judgment and by doing that Mazuronak is opening herself up to increased scrutiny.
Quick Take #8: Athletics Kenya Almost Botched This
Athletics Kenya should be thanking their lucky stars that Sumgong came through for them today because Visiline Jepkesho (86th place) and Helah Kiprop (DNF) certainly did not. Back in May when Kenya chose their official marathon squad, we explained to you why it was insane to leave off stars like Mary Keitany and Florence Kiplagat in lieu of the unheralded Jepkesho. We’ll never know how Keitany would have finished in Rio, but the fact that she just threw down an impressive course record at Beach to Beacon doesn’t do anything to change our minds that she was a much better choice than 86th place Jepkesho. We had a similar criticism of the men’s squad where selectors chose politician Wesley Korir over some much better runners, but we’ll have to wait until next week to see how that pans out.
Quick Take #9: Twin And Triplet Power
While none of them were factors in the medal race, the Rio marathon was very notable for the abundance of twins and triplets. We counted at least three sets, with North Korean twins Hye-Song Kim and Hye-Gong Kim finishing with identical times in 10th and 11th, German twins Anna Hahner and Lisa Hahner finishing holding hands in 81st and 82nd and Estonia triplets Lily, Leila and Liina Luik taking 97th, 114th and a DNF.
Also interesting is the different approach the siblings took to their racing. The two North Koreans ran the entire race side-by-side and finished with identical times, but the Germans actually ran their own races. Anna was ahead for the first 10K, then she and Lisa were even at 15K with Lisa taking off and at one point getting a gap of 31 seconds on her sister. But Anna caught up during the final 2K and they finished hand-in-hand.
With the Estonians, the fastest Luik sister (Lily) took off from the start on her own while Leila and Liina ran together for the first 10K before Liina started struggling and dropped out before halfway.
Talk about this race on our messageboard / fan forum:
- 2016 Rio Olympics:Official Day 3 Live Discussion Thread
- Thank you Jemima Jelagat Sumgong. I am OVER THE MOON!
- USA marathon women: best team score if counted like XC? Best Marathon team in Rio?
- Bahraini east Africans, why no controversy?
Here are some more photos from the race. Click for a larger image.